“Keynote Speech at the National Conference on the Sacred Heart, Waltham, Massachusetts, June 26, 2006”

(John Dear’s keynote address to the National Conference on the Sacred Heart, on June 26, 2005, in Waltham, Massachusetts, to the association of religious congregations connected to the Sacred Heart.)
Dear friends, like all of you, the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been central for me throughout my life. It moved me to enter the Jesuits, and then disarms me and is trying to fashion my own heart, and all our hearts, after his own heart, that we too might have disarmed, unarmed, nonviolent, that we might follow him on the journey of Gospel nonviolence into God’s reign of justice and peace, so that’s what I would like to share with you, the social, economic and political implications of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
These are horr endous time. We stand at a critical moment in history. You recall that the night before he was killed, the holy prophet to our country, Martin Luther King, Jr., said “The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” I think that’s where we stand today–on the brink of destruction, called to become people of radical, Gospel, creative nonviolence.
But this is not a new message. According to Wendy Wright’s great book, Jesus said the following words to St. Margaret Mary on December 29, 1673: “My divine heart is so impassioned with love for humanity, it cannot contain the flames of its burning charity inside. It must spread them through you and show itself to humanity so that they may be enriched by the previous treasures that I share with you, treasures which have all the sanctifying and saving graces needed to draw them back from the abyss of destruction.”
“The abyss of destruction!” That’s where we are today. In this world on the brink, we are called to “proclaim the heartbeat of God.” So I’d like to reflect with you about the culture of violence that is leading us to the abyss of destruction, and the alternative of Gospel nonviolence, the Sacred Heart’s way to peace for all people, and how we can become people of peace and nonviolence.
The Culture of Violence and war
First, we live in a culture of violence and war, an empire and world of injustice and death. If we want to think about the heartbeat of God in our world today, we have to understand that it is being silenced, crushed, and killed. We live in a culture that is anti-heart, cold-hearted, with hearts armed.
Today there are 35 wars currently being fought with our country involved in all of them. According to the United Nations, some 50,000 people die every day of starvation. Nearly two billion people suffer in poverty and misery. We live in the midst of structured, systemic, institutionalization of violence which kills people through war and poverty.
From this global system comes the litany of violence–executions, sexism, racism, violence against children, violence against women, guns, abortion, the destruction of environment, from the ozone layer to the rain forests to our oceans and the war on Iraq. But on August 6, 1945, we crossed the line in our addiction to violence when we vaporized 140,000 people in Hiroshima and another 40,000 people, 3 days later in Nagasaki.
Today, we have some 25,000 nuclear weapons with no movement toward dismantling them; instead, we increase our budget for killing to over $400 billion annually, we send nuclear weapons and radioactive materials into outer space; we put missile shields around the planet; and we plan even greater nukes. Violence, war, and death are the normal, legal, legitimate ways to resolve conflict. And we maintain this imperial military, economy to support a handful of corporate billionaires and their generals with the necessary requirements of ongoing war, creating enemies and victims, and keeping the American people indifferent and passive.
The False Spirituality of Violence
But underneath this culture of war and injustice is a sophisticated spirituality of violence, a spirituality of war, a spirituality of empire, a spirituality of injustice that has nothing to do with the living God or Jesus. In this false spirituality, we believe violence saves us, war brings peace, might makes right, nuclear weapons are our only security, God blesses wars, we seek not forgiveness and reconciliation but victory and domination, and the good news is not the love of enemies but the elimination of enemies. It’s heresy, blasphemy and idolatry. The empire always tries to instruct the church on sin and morality, telling us that certain personal behavior is sinful or immoral, while saying nothing about the murder of 100,000 Iraqis, as if that were not sinful or immoral.
In a spirituality of violence, the church rejects Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount as impractical, takes up the empire’s just war theory, launches crusades and blesses Trident submarines and remains silent while Los Alamos churns out nuclear weapons and enjoys the comforts of the culture of war and injustice rather than taking up the cross of Gospel nonviolence. We have a private relationship with God, fulfill our obligations and go right along with the mass murder of our sisters and brothers around the world. So we become Flannery O’Connor’s “Church Without Christ” which she described in her book, “Wise Blood,” where “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear and the dead stay dead.” That’s where we’re headed.
The empire wants the church to be indifferent and passive; it wants us to be divided and fighting and silent, or better, to bless its wars and injustices. When the church teaches the just war theory, it teaches and promotes sin, and not just sin, but mortal sin.
But God is trying to teach us a hard, new lesson, the great truth that: Violence doesn’t work. War doesn’t work. Violence in response to violence always leads to further violence. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.
As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword. Those who live by the bomb, the gun, the nuclear weapon, will die by bombs and guns and nuclear weapons.” You reap what you sow. The means are the ends. What goes around comes around.
War can not stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War only sows the seeds for future wars. War can never lead to lasting peace or true security or a better world or overcome evil or teach us how to be human or deepen the spiritual life.
If we want peace, we have to denounce the lie of war and the false spirituality of violence that justifies war and say: War is not the will of God. War is never blessed by God. War is not endorsed by any religion. War is the very definition of mortal sin. War is demonic, evil, anti-democracy, anti-human, anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-life. For Christians, war is not the way to follow Jesus. Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future and the God of peace. Until we renounce violence and war once and for all, we have not understood the spiritual life, the church, the Gospel, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So if we want to be Gospel people of peace and justice, if we want to help the Sacred Heart lead humanity from the abyss of destruction, we have to take the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and practice nonviolence.
The Alternative of Gospel Nonviolence
What is nonviolence? I urge you to reflect on this word, to define it and practice it in your life. Active nonviolence begins with the vision of a reconciled humanity, the vision of the heart, the reign of God in our midst, the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, all already united, and so, we could never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, builds nuclear weapons, and allows others to starve.
This is the spiritual life and the work of the church: to end war, feed the hungry, heal, liberate, disarm the world, make peace, and love every human being with unconditional, all-inclusive, all-encompassing, non-retaliatory, sacrificial, universal love. We are called to practice the ethics of the Sacred Heart, to be mindful of the social, economic and political implications of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone again. It is not passive but active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race; resists systemic evil; persistently reconciles with everyone; disarms our hearts and the world; but insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of any human being; and instead of killing others, we are willing to undergo being killed in the struggle for justice and peace; instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate as we pursue justice and peace for all people.
Nonviolence is not passive; it is active, creative, provocative, challenging! It’s a life force, Gandhi said, that when harnessed becomes contagious and can disarm nations and change the world; a force more powerful than all the weapons of the world. We’re just beginning to tap into it.
The world says there are only two options in the face of violence: you can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option: creative, active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist violence with creative love, trusting in God, willingly suffering but insisting on the truth of our common humanity until the scales fall from the eyes of our opponents and we are reconciled.
So nonviolence begins in our hearts, where we renounce all the violence inside ourselves, and then moves out with active nonviolence to our families, communities, churches, cities, our nation and the world. We practice it personally in the face of violence. When organized on a large level, active nonviolence can transform the world, as Gandhi demonstrated in India’s revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu and the churches of South Africa showed against apartheid.
Nonviolence is a method to confront and transform injustice and war. We organize, publicly challenge, and where people down until the transformation happens.
After years working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation and meeting religious peace activists around the world, I’ve come to the conclusion that all the religions of the world are rooted in nonviolence. Islam means peace. Judaism upholds the magnificent vision of shalom, where people beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. Gandhi exemplified Hinduism as active nonviolence. Buddhism is all about compassion toward all living beings. May I suggest that even Christianity is about nonviolence.
Jesus and nonviolence
Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who don’t know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians.
The only thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he practiced active, public, creative nonviolence. He called us to: “love our neighbors, love one another, show compassion to everyone, seek justice for the poor, forgive everyone, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, turn the other cheek, take up the cross in the struggle for justice and peace, lay down your lives in love for humanity. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
The most significant, revolutionary words he ever said are the climax of the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies.” If this is the message of Jesus, if we want to be faithful to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we have to reject the false spirituality of violence and war and follow the nonviolence of Jesus and love our enemies, no matter what anyone else says.
Jesus organizes the poor and walks from Galilee to Jerusalem on a campaign of active nonviolence into the Temple, the symbol of imperial and religious oppression of the poor, the center of systemic injustice, and in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, turns over the tables of the moneychangers. “This is a house of prayer,” he says. He doesn’t hurt anyone, kill anyone, or bomb anyone. But he does engage in peaceful, nonviolent action; he is not passive. Jesus gave his life for peace. Jesus was a nonviolent revolutionary, a one person crime wave.
For this, he is arrested, tried, tortured, and executed, a victim of the death penalty. His last words to the community, to the church, to us, as the soldiers drag him away, could not be clearer or more to the point: “Put down the sword.”
Now you might say this is the one moment where violence is justified. Peter was right to take up a sword, to kill to protect our guy, the Holy One. But Jesus issues a new commandment: “Put down the sword.” That’s it. We are not allowed to kill. That’s why they run away; they realize he is serious about nonviolence, that we follow a martyr. Then he shows perfect nonviolence, standing before the whole cohort, 600 soldiers, mocked with a crown of thorns, and he doesn’t fight or even get angry.
So Jesus dies on the cross saying, “The violence stops here in my body, which is given for you. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not allowed to kill.” And God raises him from the dead, and he says, “Peace be with you.” Then he sends us forth into the culture of violence as people of nonviolence. They can kill us because our survival has already been guaranteed. We are people of resurrection. We know that life is stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, peace and compassion are stronger than war.
Just as the crucifixion, the execution, of Jesus was completely legal, but his resurrection was totally illegal. It was an act of civil disobedience! The soldiers had put to guard the tomb, as if to say to Jesus, “Now you’re dead; stay dead.” Jesus broke the law when he rose from the dead.
From now on, we will never hurt another person again. We will never support war or killing again, regardless of what our country tells us, our parents tells, or what anyone else tells us. We have been disarmed and we are going to love our enemies, beginning with the people of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. For us, there is no such thing as a just war theory. It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus.
I submit that we cannot claim to be people of the Sacred Heart, we cannot proclaim the heartbeat of God to the world and support war and nuclear weapons at the same time. We have to go all the way into the great nonviolent, universal love of the Sacred Heart, and accept the social, economic, and political implications of his Sacred Heart and be people of peace, justice and disarmament.
The Catastrophe of Iraq
What the U.S. is doing today in its occupation of Iraq is a total disaster. Iraq is not a liberated country. It’s an occupied country, that has to do what it is told, and we are the imperial, military occupiers, and there is going to be more and more senseless bloodshed as long as we remain there, and we are turning the whole world against us. It is a complete, utter disaster, and it goes completely against the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If you love the Sacred Heart of Jesus, you have to be against the U.S. occupation of Iraq!
In March 1999, I led a delegation of Nobel peace prize winners to Baghdad. We met with religious leaders, like the Papal nuncio and Imans, United Nations officials, and non-governmental organizations, (including Margarat Hassan, who was killed last November) and even government representatives, but most importantly, we met with hundreds of dying children and saw with our own eyes the reality of suffering inflicted by the sanctions, because we have systematically destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure. From 1990 until now, our sanctions have killed over 1 million Iraqis, half of them children under 5.
When we arrived in Baghdad, we went first to visit the remains of the Ameriyah shelter, which we bombed on February 12, 1991, Ash Wednesday, killing over 500 women and children who were asleep at 4 a.m. I will never forget going to the girls school in Baghdad, and being greeted by 500 school girls, with them singing in Arabic the old civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” “Deep in my heart, I do believe,” they sang, “We shall live in peace in someday.” Then, they said, “Why is your government trying to kill us? What have we done to you? We want to be friends with the kids in America!” We visited the hospitals, held the dying children, and at the press conference, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Perez Esquivel said that the US is practicing genocide.
The massacre of 100,000 Iraqis last year and the U.S. imperial occupation is not about Sept. 11th or stopping their weapons of mass destruction, since they were destroyed years ago, or about democracy or disarmament or the Kurds or the Iraqi people.
If we cared about democracy, we would have asked them how to support democracy, as we did, and they said to us, “Don’t bomb us, give us food and medicine, fund nonviolent democratic movements.” We responded militarily instead with sanctions and bombs.
If they cared about the possibility of Iraq having one part of a weapon of mass destruction, we would dismantle our own 20,000 weapons of mass destruction. Last year, I said in Santa Fe, that Pres. Bush is looking for weapons of mass destruction, but we found them, they’re right here in our backyard in New Mexico. He doesn’t have to bomb New Mexico, just dismantle every one of them!
It’s all about Bush and Cheney’s goal to control Iraq’s oil fields, at any price, to gain financial control of the world economy. We bombed every single major building in Baghdad except for the Ministry of Oil. We have an imperial economy based entirely on oil and weapons, and to maintain this empire, we have to wage war and wars require the blood of children, the blood of Christ. I think this imperial, corporate greed is sowing the seeds of global catastrophe, and our job is to call for an end to the occupation, the immediate return of our troops, the end of all U.S. military spending in the Middle East, and nonviolent solutions through the United Nations.
Every empire in history has fallen and I think we are witnessing the beginning of the fall of the American empire, and it’s going to be messy. We can help by making that fall less catastrophic for the poor around the world, to help the fall of the empire happen nonviolently.
My Journey to Peace
As Gandhi said, you try every legal avenue–praying, fasting, marching, speaking, preaching, teaching, lobbying, organizing, talking with the press, then the Spirit leads you across the line and you break the laws which legalize war, to obey the higher law of God, so that led me to take up the life of crime, and I’ve not be rehabilitated since. So I’ve been demonstrating and acting for peace and disarmament like you for many years and been arrested over 75 times for nonviolent civil disobedience against war and injustice. I’ve been a full fledged criminal, with a real problem with recidivism.
All of this led me on December 7th, 1993, with Philip Berrigan and two friends, to walk onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, right through the middle of wargames, and invoking the biblical commandments to beat swords into plowshares and love our enemies, hammered twice on an F-15 nuclear-capable fighter bomber in a “Plowshares disarmament action.” We were surrounded by soldiers and I said on behalf of the group, “We are unarmed, peaceful people; we mean you no harm; we’re just here to dismantle this weapon of death.” And we all hoped, that everyone would come to their senses, and the soldiers would say, “What were we thinking? Of course, go right ahead. Thank God you came.” But that didn’t happen. For that action I faced 20 years in prison. I was found guilty of two felony counts, destruction of government property and conspiracy to commit a felony crime. I spent eight months in a tiny jail cell with Phil and never left it except for a few days in court. It was a powerful experience of God, from the action to our imprisonment to the trials.
I’m learning the old lesson from the abolitionist movements, the suffragettes and women’s movement, the labor and civil rights movements, and the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, that positive, nonviolent social change comes about through risk and sacrifice; when good people break bad laws which legalize injustice and war and accept the consequences; when we accept suffering without retaliating as we insist on the truth of justice and peace with love; that peace and justice comes about, in the end, through our participation in the paschal mystery, when we share in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
September 11th.
I was supposed to be having breakfast with my parents on 9/11 at the top of the World Trade Towers, but at the last minute, they changed their minds, and we were having breakfast at the top of a hotel overlooking central park when the planes struck. They left town and I started immediately volunteering like thousands of other New Yorkers and was asked by the Red Cross that Thursday to be the local coordinator of all the chaplains at the Family Assistance Center, where all the families came, and supervised over 500 chaplains of all religions and personally met with over 1500 grieving relatives and escorted hundreds to Ground Zero, and also talked with hundreds of rescue workers at Ground Zero. At the same time, like many of you, I was speaking out against the war on Afghanistan, organizing vigils, going to marches, engaging in civil disobedience, trying to practice these commandments of Jesus, that we love our neighbors and love our enemies, to show compassion both near and far, to be for peace at home and abroad.
New Mexico
I now live and work now in New Mexico, which is the poorest state in the country, and number one in military spending and number one in nuclear weapons. I’ve been working in parishes in the desert among the poor, and starting Pax Christi groups and calling for the closing of the nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos.
You may have heard what happened to me about a year and a half ago. I live in the desert of New Mexico, and had been serving in five parishes, and speaking out against the war, and one morning, on November 20, 2003, the day after it was announced that the local unit of the National Guard was going to Iraq, at 6 a.m., 75 soldiers came marching down the street in front of the rectory and church where I live, shouting battle slogans. They marched passed the church for an hour, then the shouting got real loud and I looked out the window and discovered that they were standing right in front of my house, filling up the street, shouting out, “Kill, kill, kill!” so I went out and gave them a speech, saying, “in the name of God, I order you to quit the military, not to go to Iraq, not to kill anyone or be killed, and to follow the nonviolence of Jesus.” They just looked at me with their mouths hanging open, and then broke up laughing. So now I’m totally notorious. But I’ve been telling my peace movement friends, that I no longer have to go to demonstrations. From now on, the soldiers come to me!
On August 6th, 2005, Hiroshima day, we’re going to Los Alamos for the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, and this time, like the people of Ninevah, we’re going to put on sackcloth and ashes and repent of the sin of war and nuclear weapons. You are all invited! (see: www.paxchristinewmexico.org)
What can we do? I want to suggest three steps for proclaiming the heartbeat of God in our world today:
1. We need to be contemplatives of nonviolence, mystics of nonviolence
The only way to deepen in nonviolence whatever our religious tradition is through prayer, which means we have to become contemplatives and mystics, people who sit with the God of peace, who take intimate time each day for our relationship with the God of peace, who allow the God of peace to disarm our hearts of our violence and the wars within us so that we can be disarmed and become people of nonviolence. We have to allow the God of peace to disarm our hearts!
Keep giving God your own inner violence and resentments. Grant clemency and forgiveness to everyone who ever hurt you, and move from anger and revenge and violence to nonviolence and compassion for everyone, so that we can become people who radiate personally the peace we seek politically.
Catholicism is about love, compassion, understanding, forgiveness and nonviolence. Don’t be mean, angry Catholics.
When Jesus called us to love our enemies, he said we should because God does this. God let’s the sun shine on the just and the unjust, and the rain fall on the good and the bad. God is compassionate to everyone, and we should too. This is the heart of nonviolence.
As you work for peace and justice, you learn, contrary to what the Pentagon and the warmaking culture says, that our God is not a god of war, but the God of peace; not a god of injustice, but the God of justice; not a god of vengeance and retaliation, but the God of compassion and mercy; not a god of violence, but the God of nonviolence; not a god of death, but the living God of life. We discover a new image of God.
If we can begin to imagine the peace and nonviolence of God; to worship the God of peace and nonviolence; if we can help our communities to worship the God of peace; then we will refuse to support war and become people of peace and nonviolence, true followers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
2. We need to be activists of nonviolence.
I asked Cesar Chavez shortly before he died, what we should do for peace and justice. He said, “Public action, public action, public action! Tell everyone they have to act publicly for peace and justice for the rest of their lives.”
None of us can do everything, but as Oscar Romero said, all of us can do something. Each one of us needs to be involved in some public action against war, for peace and justice, and to stay with it for the rest of our lives; to vigil, march, organize, leaflet, fast, protest and cross the line for peace, to keep the peace movement moving! In particular, we need to love our enemies, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Colombia and elsewhere. What can we do?
1.) Keep on organizing vigils to bring the troops home and stop the Iraq war.
2.) Go to Nevada on August 6th; or organize your own peace vigil for Hiroshima day;
3.) Go to the SOA protest in November;
4.) Start a Pax Christi group in your area.
5.) Join the One Campaign to abolish hunger and poverty and lift the third world debt;
6.) Support and join the “Nonviolent Peaceforce” to help disarm the war zones; and
7.) Support local campaigns to abolish the death penalty.
3. We need to become prophets of nonviolence
I think the task before each one of us now and for the rest of our lives is to break the silence, the complicity and acceptance of our culture of war, to disrupt the culture of war, to denounce the false spirituality of violence and speak the truth of peace and announce God’s reign of nonviolence; to call the country to conversion.
From now on, each one of us must speak out publicly as never before against our country’s wars and nuclear weapons, and call for peace, justice, and nonviolent alternatives. That means that we must speak out and say, “Stop the occupation of Iraq. Bring all our troops home, let the UN resolve the crisis. Seek nonviolent solutions for peace through the UN.”
We must also call for an immediate end to all U.S. military aid to Israel; demand our country stop funding the occupation of the Palestinians; stop supporting Israeli war criminals; and start supporting nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. We have to say that we’re not anti-Semitic nor do we support suicide bombers, but that we want the Jewish vision of shalom, that Palestine is all about human rights.
We must demand that our country stop military aid to Colombia and the Philippines; close our own terrorist training camps, like the School of Americas in Georgia, as well as the CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon. Leave the World Trade Organization and lift the entire Third World debt.
We must call for dramatic cuts in our military budget; an immediate end to the Star Wars missile shield program; and the abolition of every nuclear weapon and weapon of mass destruction, and demand that our country undertake international treaties for nuclear disarmament; join the world court and international law; and then, redirect those billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace through international cooperation for nonviolent alternatives; to feed every starving child and refugee on the planet, end poverty, show compassion to everyone and protect the earth itself.
Whether we are heard or not, whether our message is accepted or not, our vocation is to proclaim it. We must speak the truth of peace and justice; otherwise our silence is complicity with the culture of war. We have to become prophets of nonviolence, a prophetic people who speak on behalf of the God of peace, like the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So my hope and prayer is that we will become contemplatives, activists, and prophets of Gospel nonviolence, that we will fashion our own hearts after the Sacred heart of Jesus and proclaim the heartbeat of God to the world.
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t despair. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be silent. And don’t give up. There’s too much work to do! From now on, we model ourselves after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and proclaim his universal love to world by resisting war, poverty and nuclear weapons. Thank you. God bless you.